The enduring popularity of superheroes in the United States raises all sorts of interesting questions. What exactly is being lauded in these supers and what does this lauding say about democracy, individual will, freedom, and other idealized values of our nation? I have been privy to a number of conversations around these questions on account of the smart research being done by Adam D. J. Brett, a graduate student in my department at Syracuse who is mentored by my colleague and dear friend, Zachary Braiterman. This blog post on The Incredibles and The Incredibles II will not likely touch on Brett’s concerns, but if it does I assume he’ll tell me!
Two facets of the Incredibles films strike me at once. First, the turn away from the state in order to attend to the microdynamics of family; and second, the affective fluidity between the impossible desire to “get it right” in the family and the impossible desire to inaugurate substantive community (Gemeinschaft) in civil society.
As any reader of Hegel knows, de-emphasizing the state is a historical interruption of the assumption that the family exists as the ethical core of the state. In both Incredibles, the family absolutely stands as an ethical core, but not for the state. As represented by government officials of various, vaguely-presented sorts, the state is not the sublation of family and civil society but appears as a weak vessel for the will of the people, poised to wither away into obscurity. The ethical impetus of the two films stays with the family for the sake of a utopian desire for authentic community (as my former student Holly White might say). To reach this impetus, the films labor first to figure out what exactly makes and secures a family (particularly the economic role of men as laboring “to provide for the family” in The Incredibles) and second to figure out the question of parenting–or, put less generously, to tarry with the social contradictions that typically glue childcare to women–in Incredibles II.
The unexplained premise of both films is that Supers are humans who just happen to possess unasked-for, physics-defying capacities. [I have often wondered whether the choice of the protagonists’ last name, Paar, is an attempt to underline Supers’ passivity with respect to their powers. “On par” with everyone else, they possess at birth whatever the genetic process has doled out, without any “super” intervention.] The use of their unearned specialness to intervene in social catastrophes is either outright resented, as is clear in the first Incredibles through Syndrome’s monologues, or found to be simply too chaotic, destructive, and expensive. In an ironic swipe against the order-restoring Supers, the general populace judges them disorderly and cries out to ban them. Lo-and-behold, the state meekly acts on the misguided General Will and bans them.
It is hard to feel sympathy for the Supers. Though their “natural being” is cruelly repressed by social opprobrium, they still remain, well, super. The first Incredibles presents this dynamic beautifully and humorously by squeezing the hulking Bob Paar into a tiny cubicle of a heartless insurance company. The images suggest that surely Mr. Incredible himself is a better insurance policy than anything sold by the company! It seems that social repression of the Supers’ powers only hurts society; it doesn’t really hurt the Supers. Far from arcing toward a radical anti-democracy, one might read this message against the grain and conclude that grooming persons fully to be who they are born to be–whatever their inchoate gifts and skills–will more certainly ensure social democracy than any state-enforced policy enacted in response to fear or misunderstanding.
Back to the Family. In the Incredibles the gender dynamics in the family are cis, bourgeois, and heteronormative. Helen has taken Bob’s last name, and she represses Elastigirl in order to craft a successful, stay-at-home-mom persona. The familiar plot of Hollywood family drama is blown up, however, when Helen seeks counsel about her possibly cheating husband from Edna Mode, the fashion designer and no-nonsense critic. In both Incredibles films, it is Edna who speaks the film’s central message. In the first film, Edna shrieks in disgust at the sobbing Helen and her ridiculous, learned impotence:
“You are Elastigirl! My God! Pull yourself together! ‘What will you do?’ Is this a question? Show him you remember that he is Mr. lncredible, and you will remind him who you are! Well, you know where he is. Go! Confront the problem! Fight! Win! And call me when you get back, darling. I enjoy our visits.”
The viability of family lies here not in sublating social assimilation to state policy but in undermining the law in order truly to become who you are, that is, in relationships based on love and loyalty and that work to bolster each other in the communal task of protecting your neighbors with the skills and gifts you have.
Many viewers supposed the gender inversions of Incredibles II to function as something like “equal time”. But really it’s more like a mirror image, with all the wonkiness that comes into play when you step through the looking glass. Helen Paar’s reincarnation as Elastigirl is the social application of the ethico-relational habits she developed as a stay-at-home mother, but without the feminine submissiveness required of her suburban persona. What habits? Those of close attention, awareness of details, a care for the integrity of space and process, a concern for the needs of the other. Recall that when Helen begs Bob to get more engaged in the family in this first film, Bob yells the desire back at her (“You want me to be more engaged?”) and then lifts the dinner table, careening the children through space. In Incredibles II, this kind of blunt action without regard for bodily context is actually given a neoliberal quantification: Mr. Incredible causes more damage and therefore costs more. If the public is to be cajoled back into favoring Supers, Elastigirl’s ethico-relational approach is a better bet. The benefits of her approach far exceed cost-savings, however.
Once again, it is the encounter with Edna Mode that reveals the film’s true message. Bob is exhausted and despondent and, let’s face it, jealous of Elastigirl’s public regard. Edna poo-poos Bob’s self-pity. She tosses her message back to Bob, over her shoulder:
“Done properly, parenting is a heroic act. …Done properly.”
The message here, I think, is not just that men need to up their game and learn to competently perform the household and childcare tasks that have been women’s purview for centuries, but that in learning these tasks they need also to learn a different manner of relating to others: to children, to neighbors, to lovers, to train tracks and tall buildings and anything else that has been materially wrought, brought into the world, and cared for.
To sum up by repeating my premise: the desire of The Incredibles and Incredibles II is profoundly democratic, perhaps even isonomic in the manner theorized by Kojin Karatani. The desire is, in short, for an open, caring civil society that soon will not need state machinations to bind it together. The desire is for family structures that cultivate deep attention and deep caring for others, an attention that bolsters each person’s unique skills and gifts, and a care that translates into support, protection and understanding. The desire is for the affects of this kind of family to broaden fluidly into a social context so that we feel ourselves a rule of the people, or an equal norm of the people, even while recognizing that each of us has different, unasked for, proclivities that need nurture, attention, and practice. That the two films focus on Bob Paar is a not-so-subtle indication that this ethico-relational comportment for the collective crafting of social community is hardest for those in dominance: for whites, for the middle classes of sufficient economic stability, and especially for men.
Impossible desires. Incredible.